Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report: Flint Water Crisis “Systemic Racism”; “Complete Failure of Government”

Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report: Flint Water Crisis “Systemic Racism”; “Complete Failure of Government”
February 20, 2017 Mary Ellen Geist
Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Geist

“Would the Flint water crisis have been allowed to happen in Birmingham, Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids?” asks the Michigan Civil Rights Commission report which took one year, three public hearings and testimony from 150 residents, experts and government officials to compile.

The Commission says, “We believe the answer is no, and that the vestiges of segregation found in Flint made it a unique target.”

The conclusion? “The Commission determined that the actions resulting in the poisoning of the city’s water supply abridged the civil rights of Flint residents under state law.”

Photo courtesy of Michigan.gov

Flint Water Crisis Report

However, the 135-page report from the bi-partisan commission of four Republicans and four Democrats says all Flint residents suffered from the water crisis, not just people of color.

The report, which was unanimously adopted on Friday, February 17th calls for the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a way to gain back government trust lost during the water crisis. The idea stems from a similar commission formed in South Africa after the end of apartheid.  And it specifically calls for Governor Rick Snyder to provide training on race bias for all state departments, including the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Racist Practices Stemming from Before World War II

At times, Friday’s Commission meeting was like a history lesson which began with employment and housing discrimination against blacks in Flint before World War II, segregation in the 1950’s, and extended into racist practices through the 1970’s. The Commission concluded that policies that allowed only whites to move to the suburbs contributed to a mostly black and poor population in Flint that faced high water costs built for a much larger population, and is ultimately what led to the use of the Flint River as a cheaper water source.

However, the report concludes that Flint residents of all colors, races and incomes were harmed. The report says, “The people of Flint did not enjoy the equal protection of environmental or public health laws, nor did they have a meaningful voice in the decisions leading up to the Flint water crisis.”

Co-chair of the Commission during the investigation, Arthur Horwitz, said, “We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgement of civil rights for the people of Flint.”

The media was named among the many institutions that failed Flint residents during the water crisis which began in 2014.

The commissioners made it clear that they did not believe the people who made the final decisions that led to the Flint water crisis were racists, but they said that historic racism in Flint institutions played “a significant role in creating the conditions that allowed the lead contamination to happen, and in the failure to recognize and address it in a timely fashion.”

The commission outlined a list of recommendations for actions that include replacing or restructuring Michigan’s emergency manager law, developing a plan of action to provide environmental justice to all Michigan residents, and developing a deeper understanding of the role of racism and implicit bias and how they affect decision making in all branches of government.

One item the commissioners said was absolutely necessary was training on racism and implicit bias for the Governor’s cabinet and the staff of all state departments.

Flint Residents: “We are Disappointed”

The job of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission was to find out whether Flint residents’ civil rights were violated.

But many of the Flint residents who attended Friday’s meeting were upset because the Commission provided no immediate relief for Flint residents in the form of financial aid or federal help to build new water pipes.

Claire McClinton who was born and raised in Flint tells Great Lakes Now, “I do not want to give the impression that we are not glad the commission came to Flint and held these very thorough hearings. That being said, their recommendations were very underwhelming and they did not live up to the crisis at hand. For that we are disappointed.“

McClinton says, “We wanted Flint declared a disaster area, to free up federal money.  We have been unable to drink our water and we still can’t drink it..”

McClinton says she wanted the commission to recommend “bringing the Army Corps of Engineers here to get these pipes changed. Then we want Medicare for all Flint residents, not just people over 65.  Then ABOLISH this emergency manager law.  Don’t tweak it! The emergency manager law is designed for the purpose of stripping democracy from the local municipalities and the school boards.”

Finally, McClinton says Flint residents should not have to pay their water bills.

She tells Great Lakes Now, “We are not going to pay for poisoned water.”


Tony Palladeno has lived in Flint from the day he was born. He says, “It’s been three years now. We are worn out. We’re tired.”

Palladeno tells Great Lakes Now, “We’ve been destroyed. We’ve been given bottled water for drinking but that doesn’t help us. I took a shower today and my skin is still burning. I have teeth missing. I have hair loss. There are other chemicals in this water.”

Palladeno’s wife Leah says of the report, “In my opinion this was a waste of time.”

Palladeno says he owns five rental homes which are no longer rentable now because of the poisoned water. But he says besides the financial losses he has suffered, the health concerns are what are the most disturbing. And he says the report did nothing to help residents suffering from poisoned water.

Palladeno’s granddaughter Ky’Leah, who is 10 years old, says, “I wish I could take a bath.”

“Everybody Was Victimized”

Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Agustin Arbulu, tells Great Lakes Now, “Everybody was victimized. What we are talking about is separation of race, wealth and opportunity that existed and repeated itself.” Arbulu says, “Unless we deal with the disparity impact, we have a cycle that will repeat itself.”

Photo courtesy of Michigan.gov

Agustin V. Arbulu, courtesy of Michigan.gov

Though the Commission’s recommendations were passed unanimously, Commissioner Linda Lee Tarver said she wanted to make sure the people of Flint understood the commission realized, “We need to do a better job of listening.”

She also said, “I want to make sure that we don’t hold harmless businesses that contributed to the toxicity of the water: GM, DuPont and Buick. They left the Flint River and went to the Detroit alternative years ago. I have yet to see an environmental plan that would hold these businesses accountable.” She said, “Having a commission with no authority is a waste of time.”

The commissioners agreed, “We have to make sure another Flint does not happen again.”



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